Interview with Katherine Nolan.Conducted by James Triesler at the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Conference, September 2008.

 

Nolan: My name is Katherine Nolan. My friends call me Kate. I am from Massachusetts, and I decided to become a nurse becauseÖin WWII, we were not involved but it was already starting in Europe and I could see the handwriting on the wall and knew that nurses would be needed. SO I joined the Army Nurse Corp. This was 1943 and my first duty station was McDill Field, Tampa, Florida, and I reported for duty in August. I had asked for duty with the army air corps, I wanted to be a flight nurse and when I got there I was told that they werenít taking anymore and that they were closing the school down temporarily and they had a long wait list when they were going to start up again. So I was at McDill for a year and then the army put out a call for nurses and got permission to recruit nurses from the air corp because they had a number of hospitals over seas that took a lot of nurses. So I signed up for that. Meanwhile, I had met my husband to be, but we only knew each other a couple of months, and before we had a chance to plan to get married or anything, I got my orders to Europe and he got sent to the Pacific, so we wrote letters for two years which are in shoeboxes.

††††††††††† I joined the 53rd field hospital at Fort Bragg and they were in a staging area and within a week were on our way to New York and boarded the Queen Elizabeth and headed for England. We spent three months in England training for the invasion and it was a lot of physical training; ten mile hikes with full packs three times a week, and aircraft identification, and putting up the tents and setting up the wards and so forth. We invited the townspeople to come and see what we were doing. We were supposed to go over to Normandy on D-Day; of course nobody knew when D-Day would be. We were supposed to go over in gliders but the cancelled us at the last minute so we didnít go over until a month later by ship. We landed on Utah Beach, we waded in, and we were in pop tents for about three weeks. Our equipment got waylaid somewhere along the line so we didnít get to set up our hospital for those weeks but they loaned us out to other hospitals which had lost some personnel but kept all their equipment so they kept us busy anyway. We were with General Patton and his army, and we were with Patton when he broke out of Normandy and went racing across the peninsula to Britain. At that point we were assigned to the 3rd armored division and we went from there to Northern France. That was the second battle after Normandy. Weíd set up for about five days, five, six or seven days. We, being a field hospital, got only the most seriously wounded, the ones that needed immediate surgery. If they could be transported then they went back to an evac, which was some distance behind us. The field hospitals were closest to the front because they were the first hospitals in the line of evacuation. It went from the field hospital to the evac. hospital and back to the general hospital

††††††††††† When we started getting the wounded in, it would keep going on for 24 maybe 48 hours or more, as long as the fighting was going on, and weíd be getting incoming wounded. Nobody would get off of duty or even take a break until every last patient was out of surgery and there were no more wounded coming in. Weíd keep the patients about 5 to 7 days, and by that time they would usually be strong enough to send them back to the evac hospital. When we would receive the patients, theyíd be deep in shock so we had shock teams that would treat them first and as soon as they were stabilized they would go to X-ray and right into surgery. Theyíd be in surgery within a couple of hours of their arrival. We got mostly chest and belly wounds. Some were amputations but usually those also had a chest or belly wound. Usually with an amputation, you were able to control the bleeding using a tourniquet†† or something so that they could be transported back to the evac to have that done. We had three platoons to each field hospital and we operated as three separate hospitals with different locations. Sometimes we didnít see the other platoons for months and at times we were 100 miles or more apart. Each platoon had a dentist and we were surprised to find that the dentist was spending more time in surgery wiring jaws and assisting surgeons than spending time doing the usual dental work like fillings and so forth. I donít think the dentists ever got any credit for that. People just think dentists never really do much except for what they usually do at home. When they did fill teeth which were usually with the person in her outfit, they used a bicycle like machine and the corpsman would sit on that and pedal and the faster he pedaled the faster the drill would go, but it wasnít really fast enough. I just wanted to give the dentists a little praise. We went from France to Belgium and Belgium to Holland. We were in Holland in November we stayed there longer than usual and we had two setups in two different towns. We got our orders to evacuate on Christmas Eve so we were going into Germany, Christmas morning so we had no Christmas that year. The army and all the military branches take great pride in supplying Christmas dinners to all the troops wherever they are they say they even deliver them to the fox holds. But they didnít deliver them to us we were on k- rations Christmas day; and in fact we had a recent reunion with the theme ďThe Christmas We Never Had.Ē They gave us our turkey dinner and a gift so it was only 60 years too late, but we appreciate it anyway. From Holland we went back into Belgium temporarily for the Bulge and we were in Saint Bith the northern part of the Bulge. They said we were in the armpit of the Bulge. And thatís what everyone talks about, the cold; it was 20 below zero or more. It was the coldest winter of the century in Europe. The poor GIís, some of them were freezing to death in their foxholes, dying without an enemy action involved. It was pretty hard to keep the tents warm. We had two potbellied stoves, one at each end of the tent. We had to find wood, once in a while we would find coal, to keep the fires burning. Some of our personnel ended up with frozen feet and of course patients coming in were often frost bitten along with their chest and belly wounds. We ended up in Germany, when the war ended we were immediately put on Pacific alert as were the other field hospitals and some of the evac. hospitals. And they kept us out in a bivoac situation while the rest of the military was moving into buildings and starting to enjoy the comforts of life. Fortunately we never did have to go to the Pacific because of the bomb. Everyone was happy when the war ended. I know there is a lot of controversy now but I donít think people know what it was like back then. If they hadnít dropped it there would have been a lot more lives, on both sides, lost. And I could never understand why the Japanese didnít surrender when the first bomb was dropped. They were warned if they didnít surrender immediately then the second bomb would be dropped in three days, and they waited for the second bomb to drop before they surrendered. Anyhow, we didnít get back home until November.We didnít come back on the Queen, either.We came back on an old Italian ship that had been a luxury liner, but it was very small.In November, the seas were rough.We had snow and everyone on board the ship was sick except me.It took us, I believe, ten days to make it.We sailed home from Marseilles, France.Going over on the Queen, it was only six days.It was a very rough trip coming home.

Triesler: Did you have the opportunity to see General Patton or any of the leadership while you were serving?

 

Nolan: No, I never did.Toward the end, we were transferred to the 9th Army.We were with the British at that point, under General Montgomery.Our American general was General Simpson, but he was under General Montgomery, so we had a lot of British patients at that time.All through the war we also had German prisoners.When our troops would pick up our wounded, they would pick up the German wounded too and bring them in.Often when they first came in they would be uncooperative, once they had had surgery.Before that when they came in, they were too far out of it to know what was going on.After a couple of days, when they were given less pain killers so they were more with it, they were sullen and sometimes uncooperative.When they saw that they were getting the same treatment as the GIís, their attitude changed very quickly.I think they were happy to be in our field hospital and out of the war.I had one officer, he was a Second Lieutenant.He spoke perfect English and had been educated in England.He was very obnoxious.When I went to give him his first hypoderm of penicillin, he refused, and accused me of trying to poison him.Afterwards, when he saw that I was giving it to our own GIís, he turned completely around in attitude.He started bossing me around, or trying to.He started demanding that I take care of him first, give him his penicillin first, and change his dressings first.Of course, he didnít get away with that; he waited his turn.He was the only one that we ever had any problem with, the only prisoner.

Triesler: So they kept the prisoners in the same area as the GIís?

Nolan: Yes

Triesler: Did the prisoners ever try to escape?

Nolan: They were too sick.

Triesler: How did the cold weather impact your supplies?

Nolan:I donít remember too much about that.I donít remember having any problems with the supplies at that time.

Triesler: You mentioned that your future husband was in the Service.Did you have any other siblings or relatives that were also in the Service?

Nolan: I had one cousin who was in the Navy, but no other immediate family.

Triesler: Where did your husband end up fighting?

Nolan:He ended up in Japan, after many stops along the way.I got back to New York at the end of November in 1945.He got back to San Francisco a month later at the end of December from Japan.We were married the 17th of January.We had seven children.My husband stayed in the Service.He was the career officer for 25 years.My two oldest sons are Vietnam combat veterans.The older one is now working for NASA.He is out at the jet propulsion lab in Paso Fino, California.My youngest son is on active duty with the Air Force.He has 18 years in already.My husband and I have had almost 60 years together.I guess weíre pretty lucky.

Triesler: Earlier, you mentioned that the medical personnel donít usually receive the recognition for their hard work, and I wondered what your thoughts might be.

Nolan: Well, as I mentioned to you, they donít quite get to that in the documentaries.They show the soldiers being wounded, and it shows them picking them up and carrying them to the ambulance or jeep, but they donít show where they take them.They never show the hospitals.In one film I know they show a French hospital where they took some people, but it was just a makeshift setup.We had excellent surgeons.We had surgical teams and shock teams.We often did the shock teams ourselves, but sometimes we had other teams sent to us too.We always had surgical teams that came from the best medical facilities in the country, such as Mass General and Johns-Hopkins.I mean, they were top drawer surgical teams.We were not expected to have a good survival rate, but we did.We had a 97% survival rate, and that was for two reasons.First, we were close enough to the front that they could get them to us usually within an hour.We could start the shock treatment immediately: get them stabilized, get them to x-ray, and get them to surgery.Once they had their surgery, as serious as it was, most of them made excellent progress, because they were young and healthy to begin with before they were injured.Usually by the time that we transferred them, they were doing very well, but they had a long way to go.A lot of them had further surgeries.Those with abdominal injuries usually ended up with colostomies.We did temporary ones, so that later on in the general hospital they could have the two ends joined and put back together.Hopefully they wouldnít be wearing the colostomy bags all their lives.We were very proud of the work that went on in the field hospitals.The poor medics that went out with the troops never got any recognition.They would often give the patient a first shot of morphine and stop the bleeding right under the enemyís eyes.Then they would drag them out of firing range.Of course the patient would get the Purple Heart, and the poor medic, who was doing this every day and risking his life, never got anything.Naturally, they wouldnít get a combat infantry badge, but I think they should have gotten something.

Triesler: I spoke to a medic earlier this year and he mentioned that he received very little training because they rushed him into service.He learned a lot on the job.Do you feel that a lot of your learning came after you arrived in the field hospital? Did you have an opportunity to be pretty well prepared or was there sort of a balance there that you learn what youíre doing?

Nolan: Well, all the training that you go through, how to set up a hospital and all that, once you get in the field, itís nothing like that. You are improvising all the time. Things youíre supposed to have, you donít have. You learn that you have to do things in a hurry in a field hospital. So you make do with what you have.

Triesler: Well just about learning sort of ďon the job,Ē I know Mince said that crawling under barbed wire with the machine guns set above their heads in training, they kind of knew they werenít going to be shot.

Nolan: Exactly.

Triesler: And then when they got into battle, it was completely sort of ďon the jobĒ training, and was a different environment and I was wondering to what degree. And I think you answered that well.

Nolan: Our core man at the 53rd hospital would train into other jobs too. The core man could get out there and pitch the tent if they had to. They were all cross trained so that they could fill in for each other, and I think that was important.

Triesler: Did your hospital come under fire very often since it was so close to the front lobby?

Nolan: Yeah, we were shelled.. We werenít bombed but other hospitals were.

Triesler: What can you do in those situations? Where can you hide? How can you tend the patients? What do you do?

Nolan: We couldnít leave the patients. We had to stay with them, so we usually put them on the ground under the cots, and we got down on the ground with them. Sometimes we had fox holes but we usually didnít have time to dig fox holes so there really wasnít any place to go anyways. We got hit a couple of times, and one time they set a tent on fire. Fortunately, there were no patients in it; it was one of the tents that the core man slipped in. But often, we were supposed to be able to set up in three hours and be ready to receive the wounded. Sometimes they started coming before the three hours were up, so we learned to set the tents up, not in the order that we were taught, but as they were coming in. So we set up the shock tent receiving first, and then got the x-rays set up, then the surgeries set up, and then the post stop. So that by the time they got through those processes, weíd be ready for them. Often we didnít get time to put up our personal tents; for days we would be sleeping on the ground outside, not too often but a few times it would happen.††

Triesler: I saw in the movie about General Patten that he got in great trouble for hitting a patient. I wondered, was that anything you would have been aware of during the war?

Nolan: Oh yeah, it was in the Stars and Stripes, which was a little newspaper that we got once a week. It was in there, and there was a lot of controversy about that. Patten was a great warrior. Heíd tell his troops before they go into battle, ďItís not your duty to die for your country,0 itís your duty to make the other poor son of a b**** die for his.Ē Of course it was a good point, I thought. I knew it was killed, or be killed.

Triesler: When the Bulge began, were you overrun in any point? How much were you threatened?

Nolan: Well, at one point, we were up on a hill in plain site and we of course we had red crosses on top of the tents, with a big tarp between them and the ground so the aircraft could see the Red Cross. This one day, we heard tanks coming; we quickly learned the sound of the tanks, which ones were ours and which ones were theirs. Theirs were bigger, heavier, better built, and louder. They had a different clank. In the aircraft, we could tell the difference too. So first we heard these tanks coming, and everybody thought they sounded like German tanks. We looked down and German tanks were coming down the road, but when they got to where we were on the hill, they kept on going. Iím sure thatís because they also knew that we had their patients in our tents, and we were taking care of them too. They had captured another field hospital during the bulge. That could have happened but it didnít.

Triesler: When they recaptured the field hospital, do you think they would allow it to continue functioning in any manner, or just send the people back as prisoners?

Nolan: Well some interesting things went by. There was one field hospital, not ours, and there had been a battle, hand to hand, so when our people were picking up the wounded, they noticed the Germans were not picking theres up right away. Then, some soldier came across with the white flag, and he had a note from the German commander asking to borrow litters. No, first he wanted to know if we had any penicillin that he could borrow, and so we gave him some. Then, the next thing we know, he sent another note and said, ďI think that it would be a better idea if you picked our wounded along with yours.Ē We ended up with all these extra prisoners we didnít expect.

Triesler: Now that created a lot more work for you though.

Nolan: Yeah well this wasnít my hospital, this was another one.

Triesler: When you came home, were there any parades that you could get to see?

Nolan: Oh no, now thatís another thing. All the Vietnam vets keep saying, ďOh you people had all these wonderful parades, and I know they were treated horribly when they came back. When my boys started college, in different colleges, they were told not to wear their uniforms. Of course they wouldnít anyways, but not to let anybody know they were in Vietnam. I thought how about horrible that is in their own country. But anyway, they think that we had this big parade. But what happened was that when they had the parade, it was like VJ day when the war was over. A few other troops were back home by then but not too many. Most of the military and those parades were state side; they were stationed right around that area. I was over there from November until August, and some of them stayed longer than that. It wasnít the warriors that got the parade.

Triesler: So you think the excitement had kind of died down?

Nolan: Oh yeah. We didnít come home in big groups, maybe a few at a time.

Triesler- I wanted to ask you about the airplanes. You said you can tell the difference between theirs and ours. I was wondering if you could describe what the difference might have been as far as the sound goes.

Nolan: Well for one thing, even before the sounds, we could see the planes if it wasnít foggy or night time; ours were silver. The British planes were not silver, but we knew the sounds of the British planes too because we spent three months in England. They had Rolls-Royce engines, so they sounded very smooth. Different planes had different sounds; we could just tell the difference.